Do Equity returns compound? No !!

In my last post I had written about the frequent wrong usage of Maths to create misconceptions in investing which are not factually true. One such glaring misconception is for investors to feel that there will be compounding returns on equity investments, at least over the long term. This is simply not true and I would have thought that most investors would be able to understand this. However, as I have got quite a few queries and requests for clarification, let me do so here.

To start with let us fundamentally understand what Compounding is. I have used the following definition from Investopedia:-

DEFINITION of ‘Compounding’

The ability of an asset to generate earnings, which are then reinvested in order to generate their own earnings. In other words, compounding refers to generating earnings from previous earnings.

Essentially compounding involves some positive return on your asset, irrespective of what the return might be. Due to this the absolute value of your investment will always be increasing. Note here that we are not talking of inflation and Real returns here. For example, if I have a FD of 1 lac Rs and it pays me an interest of 8 % today then at the end of 1 year I will have an amount of 1.08 Lacs. Now if inflation is also at 8 %, my real return ( interest rate – inflation rate) is 0 and I have not really gained anything in terms of my purchasing power through this investment. At the same time, the absolute value of my investment has definitely grown by 8000 Rs in the one year period. This 1.08 lacs becomes my principal amount in the next year and I earn interest on this new amount. So in effect, compounding entails my earning interest not only on the principal amount but also on the interest amount.

The usage of compounding logic works great with debt products where the interest rates are relatively stable. Take an FD as an example again. At 8 % interest rate your money will double in approximately 9 years, at 12 % rate it will double in approximately 6 years and so on. Your money always grows in absolute terms, ignore the real growth for this discussion.

Now let us look at equities and see if this logic can be sustained in the light of our knowledge of it. If you look at stock prices over a period of time, you will see that it is clearly not so. Let me give you some examples from well known companies and their share prices from fairly recent memory:-

  • ITC reached 400 Rs and is now down to 300 odd levels.
  • HUL went to 1000 and then declined to levels of 800.
  • Reliance has had negative growth over years, so has Tata Steel.
  • Some company shares like Kingfisher Airlines have become penny stocks today.

There are also many examples of company shares having done extremely well and generate spectacular returns. My point here is simple – equities can give great growth but the way to understand that is not through the compounding principle. The growth in equity is non-linear and carries serious risk with it. Now at this point, people may tell you that over the long term of 15-20 years the compounding logic will hold true for equities. Sorry, it does not – if you bought the shares of Deccan Aviation at 146 Rs in the IPO , you have lost this money pretty much forever, never mind how long you are going to wait.

When I think about why there is such a great misconception about something really straightforward, I could come up with the following reasoning in my mind:-

  1. Most people invest in equity through Mutual Funds. As a MF scheme maintains a portfolio of stocks, the overall NAV of the scheme would normally increase in a reasonably good market, which we have had in recent years.
  2. Of course, the above can change in a prolonged poor market, but not many of today’s investors have had this experience. 2008 through 2010 was such a phase but has been mostly forgotten now.
  3. The usage of CAGR term, somehow makes one think that equity investments compound. This, of course, is complete nonsense but I have seen many sensible people believe this. CAGR is an artificial construct to understand annual returns, it in no way says that such returns are stable and not even that they are positive. In fact you can have negative CAGR and negative IRR / XIRR quite easily.

So, if it is clear by now that compounding logic is irrelevant to equities then how do we go about financial planning with equities as an investment asset class? I will answer that in a future post. For now, do understand that you cannot just hope that you will invest in stocks and it will give you an XIRR of 15-20 % because that has been the historical returns in the index. I really wish life were that simple for me and you, but it does not work like that.

Take heart though – we can make great returns from equity, by understanding the correct ways of investing in it.

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4 thoughts on “Do Equity returns compound? No !!

  1. DEFINITION of ‘Compounding’

    The ability of an asset to generate earnings, which are then reinvested in order to generate their own earnings

    Purely from a definition of compounding, one can argue that even equity investments compound. Equity is ownership in a business. A business makes profits (it may well lose money as well), and re-invests part (or all) of the profits. This re-invested profit results in (hopefully) more growth. At the core, the compounding principle applies. It may result in highly variable returns, but that doesn’t mean that the principle of reinvestment / compounding is not at play.

    I think when you say “compounding”, one tends to think of clean, continuous upward movement (like in your FD example). But that is a narrow definition of compounding.

    In any case, names don’t matter as long as one understands the concept. When you say equity doesn’t compound, what you want to say is that there will not be any clean, continuous, guaranteed upside. It will be all haphazard, and any CAGR / IRR is an artifical number. I am completely aligned with that message as well.

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    • No compounding does not apply to equities as it is quite possible to have losses in equity investments. What you are trying to say is that generally equity has decent growth. This is true and we invest in equity for this reason. However, it is really not compounding – that is just used to confuse gullible people.

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  2. Sir
    Can you give your thoughts on this :
    1. What should be the asset allocation(equity,debt,property,gold) to get an post tax CAGR of 10% with low risk ?
    2. What to do with stock dividends ? Reinvest/spend/rebalance to fixed income ?

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